‘The Diner on Washington Street’ proves the capabilities of students

“Basically what I’m saying with this play is, ‘Listen. Stop latching on to ideas, because ideas only get you so far, and some of them are just plain lies. Live in the real world. Truly live your life. Live it how you want to live it, on your own terms. Define your life, and also live with other people, and live for other people,’ and as Ally says, ‘It will make all the difference,'” said senior Denis Yudin.

Yudin wrote and co-directed the play “The Diner on Washington Street,” which was performed on April 22 and 23 at the Dragon Theater in downtown Redwood City.

The play covered three storylines: that of an alien discovering American ideals, that of a group of burn-outs who work in a diner, and that of Max, the most volatile of the group. The play handled mature topics, including drugs and violence, and for that reason and the unfiltered language was intended for a mature audience.

Max (Eli Melmon) and Mo (Sebastian Golden) riddle over life's mysteries.
Jeff Bartee
Max (Eli Melmon) and Mo (Sebastian Golden) riddle over life’s mysteries.

Both nights, the seats were packed. Tickets were even oversold on the second night. Based on the impressed mood of the viewers as they matriculated after the show, it was clear that the audience overwhelmingly enjoyed what they saw.

It was really great!” said sophomore Jasmine Zang. “The characters were unique and all the actors were amazing. The ending was really cool too because the whole play was sad and led you to believe that there would be no positive outcome for any of the characters, but towards the end, while it wasn’t completely happy, the characters were a little more hopeful. I knew Denis was a great writer, but I was more than impressed when I saw Diner.”

Except for one actor, the play was entirely produced by students. All of the organizing, advertising, fundraising, websites, and posters were done by students. Senior Lucas Parkin acted as stage manager, designing the sets and lighting changes. Yudin worked hand-in-hand with sophomore Miles Ramsdell-Ray to direct the play.

“[It was a] completely student-run play,” said sophomore Eli Melmon, who played the lead, Max. “There’s one adult in the play, and he’s an actor. Otherwise, it’s all people in high school and a few late teens who are in college. But it’s all people who are extremely young. We were without any company, so everything that we’ve done is without any outside help, which is really amazing. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Melmon not only acted, but also composed the music played in the scene changes. He eventually wants to write musicals.

“This was not what I usually do,” Melmon said. “Usually I just write a piano/vocal score. But for this, I played a lot with MIDI tracks and getting different instruments and all that kind of stuff. It took me a lot of tries to get to where Denis wanted the music to sound like, but it eventually got there.”

The show encountered setbacks because the cast could only use the space for the amount of time they had rented it for. The dates for load-in and strike changed, forcing the cast to accommodate their schedules. Rehearsal time was limited as well.

Jenny (Dana Reynolds) feels trapped in a life that's beneath her. Once a well-off British girl, Jenny lost it all when her mother cut her off financially for being bisexual.
Jeff Bartee
Jenny (Dana Reynolds) feels trapped in a life that’s beneath her. Once a well-off British girl, Jenny lost it all when her mother cut her off financially for being bisexual.

“Opening night was our first full run-through, which caused a lot of anxiety and tension for everyone,” said senior Dana Reynolds, who played Jenny. “There were some technical things that had never been run. And given how little time we rehearsed (only weekends), lines were a bit sketchy, which probably hampered some people’s performances because they didn’t feel comfortable in their scenes. We’d never been able to run all of the second act in the Dragon either. We all felt pretty unprepared, but we all just did our best and hoped it didn’t show.”

Especially considering these challenges, people may have expected a shaky performance, but senior Jasmine Davidson, who was in the audience, contended that they pulled it off.

“I thought there would be more hiccups in the production, especially because when I saw it on Friday, they hadn’t had a full run-through with all the lights. But it went pretty smoothly!” said Davidson.

When he began to write “The Diner on Washington Street,” Yudin drew inspiration from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and a rundown diner he went to in San Francisco.

“That’s where I met a lot of the characters we see in this play. That’s where we met Jenny, Sasha, Brad, all them. I realized, this is it. This is the story I need to tell. It’s about the guys who get forgotten,” said Yudin.

A month later, he was writing the play as part of a project for Carolyn Wallace’s class. While working on the play, Yudin had a nightmare in which he appeared as the worst version of himself, inside the diner. That revelation gave birth to the character Max, who suffers from alcoholism and problems in his social and work life.

“This was a lot heavier than anything I’ve done, so it was a lot of deeper stuff that I had to get into than I would for a normal show,” said Melmon, who played Max.

Max (Eli Melmon) keeps a gun in his room, afraid that one day life will become just too hard to handle.
Jeff Bartee
Max (Eli Melmon) keeps a gun in his room, afraid that one day life will become just too hard to handle.

Yudin continued to write and expand his story for months. Then he took it to a theater festival.

After he performed a scene from “The Diner on Washington Street” at the Ohlone College Theater Festival and it won a judge’s award for best original written and directed piece, Yudin realized that he should put on the entire production.

His drama teacher at Carlmont, Nancy Martin, told him about the Dragon Theater, and he rented it out.

A captivating look at the harsh realities of humanity, “The Diner on Washington Street” was as much a platform for Yudin to voice his political agenda as a shock to the existential nerve. Yudin explored philosophical questions of what makes life worth living and whether survivors are guilty.

In the midst of such sober topics, Yudin still managed to slip tasteful humor in, riffing off Shakespeare and cultural stereotypes.

“I definitely want to make a career out of telling these stories and especially the stories about the people who get forgotten,” Yudin said. “Because we hear plenty of stories about the kings and queens but never about the peasants.”